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A look at the history of Jim Thorpe and Native Americans in football

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Jim Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
USA Today

Native Americans have made several important contributions to NFL history. In fact, one of the first athletes that helped shape the foundation of American football was a Native American named Jim Thorpe. Thorpe's athleticism changed the way the game was viewed in the early 1900s. He was also an Olympic gold medalist and professional baseball player.

Who was the first Native American football player?

Thorpe was the first Native American to play in the NFL. Thorpe was born in 1888 near Prague, Okla. His father was Irish while his mother was a member of the Sac and Fox Native American tribe. As a teenager, Thorpe attended Carlisle Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., in 1907. His athletic ability was on full display at Carlisle, as he set numerous track records. 

Thorpe decided to try football in 1911 and was coached by one of the pioneers of the game, Glenn “Pop” Warner. Thorpe’s agility made him instantly one of the most versatile athletes on the field. 

He played at running back, defensive back, kicker and punter and helped Carlisle beat some of the best teams in the nation like Army, Harvard, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Nebraska. In 1912, Thorpe broke out, rushing for 1,869 yards and 191 carries and 27 touchdowns. He was named a first-team All-American in both the 1911 and 1912 seasons.

After completing his final collegiate season, Thorpe participated in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, and won two gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon.

 

Thorpe started off his professional sports career playing baseball from 1913 to 1922. While playing in the major leagues, Thorpe also played football for Canton Bulldogs from 1915 to 1919. In 1920, the Bulldogs and 14 other teams joined together to form the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the NFL. Thorpe would become president of the APFA.

Other Native Americans such as Joe Guyon, who was Thorpe's backfield mate, also made an impact on the game. Guyon was another special talent that could run, pass and kick efficiently. 

When Thorpe became the first Native American to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, Guyon joined him in the Hall of Fame shortly after in 1966. Guyon was from the Chippewa Tribe and was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota.

Guyon only received a sixth-grade education and used his athletic skills to gain a college education and reach a Hall of Fame football career. After playing on the national championship-winning Georgia Tech team in 1917, Guyon signed with the Canton Bulldogs and played alongside Thorpe in 1919.

Guyon went on to play with the Kansas City Cowboys and New York Giants in the 1920s. Following a championship season with the Giants in 1927, he retired to continue to pursue a baseball career. His professional baseball days came to an end in 1928 after he suffered an injury.

What was the first Native American NFL team?

The Oorang Indians were a Native American team in the National Football League that played during the 1922 and 1923 seasons in LaRue, Ohio. Jim Thorpe served as a coach and player and recruited the members of the team. Players came from the Cherokee, Mohawk, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Winnebago, Mission, Caddo, Sac and Fox, Seneca, and Penobscot tribes. 

The franchise was originally put together by Walter Lingo as a way to promote his Oorang Dog Kennels. The team roster featured Thorpe and three other captains of the Carlisle school team and included names like Long Time Sleep, Joe Little Twig, Big Bear and War Eagle.

While the Oorang Indians weren't a very good team, winning just three games in two years, the team provided much of the pregame and halftime entertainment for fans in addition to playing games.

The team was a popular attraction during its first two years, but Lingo realized that the novelty of the franchise wore off following its inaugural season in 1922. Lingo stopped backing the team financially in 1923, forcing the Oorgan Indians organization to shut down for good.

Are there any Native Americans in the NFL in 2021?

Today’s NFL includes several Native American players. Kansas City Chiefs long snapper James Winchester is a member of the Choctaw Nation. Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen is of Lumbee descent.

 

Former Chicago Bears QB Tyler Bray is Potawatomi and former Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles QB Sam Bradford is Cherokee. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has also mentioned that he is part Native American, although he never specified which tribe he is from.